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The Outer Hebrides - The Islands Where They Invest In People

Investor in People Issue 17 - 1999-12-01

Standing on the coastline of North Uist, looking out across the sea at the sun sinking in the west, you could believe you are poised at the edge of the world. Just over the curve of the earth lies St Kilda and then nothing for thousands of miles.

It's a romantic image and a stunning view so it's not surprising that visitors are left with a strong sense of the magic.

But the 25,000 or so Hebrideans who live on the string of 12 islands cannot live by romance and magic alone. In the past they have suffered from clearances and the decline of crofting. Now they must fight again to ensure the islands are not left out of the surge in prosperity that is visiting much of the rest of Scotland.

Fortunately, the islands have two important allies on their side - modern transport and communications. It takes just three hours to fly from London to Stornoway and there are excellent services linking the islands to each other and to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness.

Meanwhile, e-mail and e-commerce have eliminated the basic problems of communications that might have worried businesses in the past. As a result, the islands are now going out self-confidently to sell themselves as a centre for investment.

This does not mean the traditional industries of weaving and crofting are dead. In fact, just after this edition of Investor in People went to press the Harris Tweed manufacturer Donald Macleod Limited underwent its first Investor in People assessment. For Kathy Mackaskill, who has managed the process, gaining recognition as an Investor in People is an important step towards making the company successful and competitive in what has, admittedly, become a very difficult market.

'For Harris Tweed the last two years have been the most disastrous in our history.' she says. 'The economic problems in the Far East combined with the strength of the pound means that sales have been very difficult.'

Yet the company is determined to press forward. A new cloth was recently launched in London and it is important for the company to operate as efficiently as possible. 'We've introduced staff briefings, set up staff handbooks and improved our administrative systems,' says Kathy.

The workshops are set in remote countryside with fantastic views. But the isolation brings home the charm of the islands as a place to live and their difficulties as a place to work in traditional industries.


The software industry has been a natural fit for the islands. Freed of the limits imposed by geography, the Outer Hebrides is now keen to exploit its other natural asset - the education and quality of its people - to attract a new era of investment.

Fortunately this policy is producing results. Most exciting of all is the arrival of iomart (pronounced eye-oh-mart meaning enterprise in Gaelic), an Internet company that is already having a big impact on the UK market. iomart now employs 60 staff at its state-of-the-art net centre on the isle of Lewis and has offices in Stornoway, as well as London, San Jose and its Glasgow HQ.

In moving their core staff to the Outer Hebrides, they have made a reality of what many companies have only dreamed about. By setting up in an 'advanced office' in the islands they have gained space, cheap rents and a very high quality of life.

'We're less than one year old here but we're doing very well,' said Taylor Edgar, Public Relations Manager. 'The vast majority of the staff have been locally recruited and we're aiming to recruit more in the future. What's more we're living in a beautiful environment with lovely views.'

In recruiting and training from scratch such a relatively large number of people iomart has appreciated the benefits of following the Investors in People Standard. From its offices it provides technical support, customer services, shop front e-commerce and web site building. Virtually all the staff have had to be trained from scratch and Investors in People has provided a model for managing the human dimension.

The results are impressive. iomart's infrastructure guarantees the highest connection speeds of any free Internet service provider and, in partnership with its sister company, it offers ISDN, ADSL and e-commerce services. Cisco has awarded the company its 'Powered network' status.

Of course one of the sweeteners of investing in the islands is access to regional grants. Tourism and fish-farming have already got some excellent success stories to tell, but at the heart of the Western Isles' message is the local people. They would prefer to stay where they are. it just needs employers now to come and get them.